Dr Susannah Thompson is Head of Doctoral Studies at the Glasgow School of Art. A previous role for her at GSA was as Exhibitions Assistant. The exhibition ‘Art Booms with the Guns: The War Years at Glasgow School of Art (1939-1945)’ ran from 7 Aug – 15 Sept 2001, in the Mackintosh Building.
In the late summer of 2001 I co-curated (with Kathy Chambers) what was intended to be a small, archival exhibition looking at staff and student life at Glasgow School of Art during World War Two. The ‘small, archival exhibition’ became an extensive, detailed examination of a unique period in GSA’s history, and an unexpected highlight of my short-lived curatorial career. The title of the show was taken from an April 1942 issue of the Glasgow newspaper The Citizen. In the same paper, GSA Director W.O Hutchison had been quoted as saying that ‘the encouragement of the arts in war-time must not in any way be regarded as a diminution of the national effort, but rather as an asset and an encouragement to a free and better future.’ Apart from a few months in 1939, and in spite of the closure of some departments (ceramics and printmaking) and a vastly reduced staff and student population, Glasgow School of Art remained open for the remainder of the war. With the assistance of many former ‘war years’ students, the exhibition collated memories, histories, photographs and artwork of the period. The opening reunited old friends and classmates and a number of the exhibits were subsequently donated to GSA’s Archives and Collections.
Along with works of art and design made by staff and students between 1939-1945 (much of it loaned by GSA alumni of the period), the exhibition included a range of archival material to provide further context to life at GSA in wartime: letters, photographs, sketches, news cuttings, medals and prizes were displayed alongside thematic text panels which included first-hand accounts of GSA from the War Years generation. Objects included a homemade knitting bag made from blackout fabric, reinforced with colour tape, just one example of the resourcefulness required when materials were in short supply. The artist and critic Cordelia Oliver loaned a drndyl skirt made of boiled tailor’s canvas, which, as a student, she had stencilled with a pattern taken from a Leon Bakst design for a Diaghilev ballet (the skirt appeared again in Sarah Lowndes’ 2012 exhibition Studio 58: Women Artists in Glasgow since World War II).
‘Painting Skirt (Version 1)’ Cordelia Oliver, c.1940s. Courtesy of GSA Archives and Collections, DC 066/3/1/2/2/v1
In the catalogue for the War Years exhibition, Oliver recalled that she and her classmates had found a stash of nurse’s white cotton stockings and dyed them bright colours to match the homemade clothes they had begun to make and wear. The students ‘deliberately set ourselves against the ugly, military style of dress which came into fashion during the war’, using whatever they could find to make skirts and blouses based on peasant dress, an undoubted influence of Kathleen Mann, the innovative former Head of the Embroidery Department who had contributed to the 1943 book New Life for Old Clothes. Mann had revolutionised the department in the 1930s and went on to publish books including Design from Peasant Art (1939). Her work was included in three other exhibitions at GSA between 1988 and 2012: Jude Burkhauser’s seminal 1988 exhibition Glasgow Girls: Women at the Art School 1880-1920; Liz Arthur’s 1996 The Unbroken Thread: A century of embroidery & weaving at Glasgow School of Art and Kathy Chambers’ 2004 Kathleen Mann: Embroiderer, Artist, Teacher and Author. Mann’s husband, the artist Hugh Adam Crawford, was Head of Painting at GSA during the war and his influence as a tutor was a recurrent theme amongst alumni of the period.
The exhibition showcased paintings by Crawford and his colleagues, including David Donaldson and Ian Fleming, along with works by his former students such as Joan Eardley, Cordelia Oliver, Frieda Ewart Scott, Carlo Rossi, Joseph O’Donnell, Maude Hamilton, Bet Low and Margot Sandeman (who would go on to work at Bletchley Park as a code breaker in 1942). A 1920s painting by former GSA student Andrew Law depicted the dandy Ancell Stronach, one of the most memorable tutors in wartime GSA, whose ‘arty dress’, according to the Glasgow Herald, ‘attracted stares as he walked briskly down Renfrew Street’, regularly accompanied by the live birds and animals that he brought in for students to draw. In 1940 Stronach left his role as a Professor of Mural Painting at GSA for a life on the stage with his act Ancell and His 40 Painted Pigeons.
‘Portrait of Ancell Stronach’, Andrew Law, c.1920s. Courtesy of GSA Archives and Collections, NMC/0051
Textiles made at GSA in the early 1940s were also featured extensively, including embroidered panels by Mary Jack, a rug wool on tweed and a tapestry footstool by Catherine McCallum (née Arthur) and a number of works by Dorothy Smith, including a canvas-work stool, a handwoven, vegetable dye seat and an embroidered hanging. Smith recalled trawling hedges to find scraps of wool and in the absence of more conventional fabrics, included her mother’s hair in her Diploma Show work. Flour bags from Scotstoun Flour Mill were used by embroiderers. The students’ ingenuity made the press – in a January 1943 issue of the Sunday Mail, it was reported that ‘lengths of Scottish tweeds, spun from the sheep’s wool from hedgerows and from the combings of dogs, are being spun in Glasgow by […] students who are reviving Scotland’s oldest arts. The tweeds, beautifully designed, have been dyed with old Scottish vegetable dyes, also collected by the students. Revival of spinning, weaving and dyeing has come through the foresight and initiative of Miss Agnes C. McCreadie, teacher at Glasgow School of Art.’
In spite of the fact that the Red Cross occupied the ground and basement floors of the Mackintosh Building during the war, former students remember a strangely spacious building, with many staff and students away on active duty. The students and staff who remained formed a close-knit and far more diverse cohort than had previously been the case. Women students were in the majority and, in 1944, the ‘marriage bar’ was lifted, allowing painters such as Mary Armour to resume teaching careers they had been forced to put on hold due to an archaic regulation that insisted women demit their profession after they married. Working class students were also more visible than ever before – increased wages and employment opportunities had allowed parents to send their children to art school or university for the first time in their family history. Conscripted students came back to visit when on leave, often in uniform, or exempted from further duty due to injury. American and Polish servicemen also became temporary students, attending evening classes while stationed in Glasgow. The headline of a Citizen newspaper cutting in the exhibition reported that a ‘Man Whose Father Kicked Hitler’s Pants is Here’. The ‘man’ was Ludwig Borsch, a student of Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and a seaman in the US Merchant Navy who spent his shore leave drawing in GSA studios. Before his family left Germany for the US, Borsch’s father had allegedly kicked Hitler at a meeting in Nuremberg in 1930.
Margot Sandeman, ‘Lovers in a Barn’, (1940). Courtesy of Gerber Fine Art.
Other international influences made a long-lasting impact on the artistic life of the school and the cultural life of Glasgow in the period. Not least, some of the two thousand refugees who had come to Scotland in 1939 made firm connections with GSA, with more following after the war. These included Manfred Selby, a member of staff at GSA in the 1950s, who had been a classmate of Albert Speer. Selby helped establish the Compass Gallery and became an important role model for young post-war architects – a number of his wartime sketches were shown in Art Booms with the Guns. The artists Josef Herman and Jankel Adler became central figures in the art community in Glasgow, bringing new ideas and forms to Scotland. Herman introduced Jewish street theatre techniques and an expressionistic treatment of pictorial space which, for Tom Macdonald, ‘helped stimulate a move away from the academic practice of the Academy’. Organisations such as the Cosmo Cinema, The Refugee Centre, the Citizen’s Theatre, the New Art Club and, in particular, the Unity Theatre (a combination of 1930s independent, progressive companies such as the Workers’ Theatre Group and the Glasgow Jewish Institute Players) flourished in the 1940s. All had close connections with GSA, as former students such as Bet Low, Cordelia Oliver and Tom Macdonald have noted. The knowledge and influence of European avant-garde practices shared by refugees and emigres had a profound impact on staff and students at GSA and represented an important cultural contribution to the city of Glasgow.
Fire-watching duty became another repeated theme in the exhibition, and students recalled the apprehension, fear and discomfort involved in their overnight vigils, yet the social aspect of fire-watching emerged as one of the most memorable experiences of the war years at GSA. A small team of students, each with a bucket of sand, fiercely guarded the Mackintosh Building each night. These memories are particularly poignant in the light of the 2014 and 2018 fires at GSA. Lewis Allan (whose 1942 painting of tutor Henry Y Allison was shown) was on the roof of the Mackintosh Building on fire-watching duty with his friend and fellow student Joseph O’Donnell. That night, Allan and O’Donnell witnessed the bombing of Clydebank, O’Donnell’s hometown. O’Donnell and his family were some of the few to survive, and he resumed study at GSA a few weeks later, having relocated to Blantyre. His Newbery and Guthrie Prizewinning Self-Portrait of 1941, loaned by fellow artist and classmate, Carlo Rossi was a highlight of the exhibition.
Front cover, catalogue, ‘Art Booms with the Guns’, The War Years at GSA’
Art Booms with The Guns became more than an exhibition in many respects. It became an opportunity to gather memories, reconsider works of art, read letters and newspapers from the period, reflect on GSA’s civic role in the city. It gave us a chance to acknowledge the valuable role of refugees and immigrants in the cultural life of Scotland and to bring together a unique generation of former students. The stories we were told in the planning of the exhibition resounded with tales of common purpose, determination, resourcefulness, hope and camaraderie. There were also tales of unremitting cold, rationing, students returning with missing limbs or not at all. For those who survived, the exhibition, organised when most were in their eighties, would be the last in their lifetime.
Read Susannah Thompson’s blog post on Newbery Gallery exhibition ‘Speak English’, Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter (2002) here.